Thursday, August 18, 2011

Blackouts on the Stage Should Be Illegal

Angie and I wandered over to the The Odyssey Theatre last night to catch a new play, END DAYS, produced by my old buddy, Ron Sossi. It's a quirky little piece, written by Deborah Zoe Laufer, and it put me in mind of some of Albee's later work, skipping and darting about without any real ambition, it seems, when suddenly, near the end, it comes together in one's mind and one can see where the piece is going. The difference being Albee is a super smart playwright - Ms. Laufer, less so. Having said that, however, it's not a bad piece of work at all taken in its entirety.

I have just about had it up to my eyeballs with episodic writing for the stage. I abhor blackouts. I abhor long scene changes. I abhor seeing actors tiptoe about in plain sight, lights dimmed, acting invisible, completely out of character, doing little transitional things like setting a table or picking up trash from the last scene, and then the lights come up and the action begins again. Who started this mind-numbingly silly way to present a play? It's ludicrous.

Of course, I realize it's been around for centuries, this episodic 'time out' way of moving a play along. Some of Shakespeare's greatest soliloquies were written to hide a scenechange happening upstage. That was then, this is now. But that's not it. I've just finished two plays, both of which I truly admired the writing, take massive body blows to their integrity because of long, attention-killing scene changes.

Ultimately this has to fall on the shoulders of the director. No getting around it. I have no idea why directors don't eschew this sort of thing. Transitions are the life or death of a play, simple as that. The less of them, the better. Episodic work should have no breathing space. The transitions, regardless of how it must be done, should be seamless, almost like cross-fades, effortlessly sheparding the audience from one place to the next, almost without their knowing. Blackouts, on the other hand, should be legally outlawed from the theatre. They are a throwback to another time. They kill plays. And, generally speaking, only substandard playwrights write them. I realize all plays can't adhere to Aristotle's Unity of Time (although I wish they's far and away the most difficult way to pen a script), but at the very least, get rid of the blackouts. And don't try to 'hide' transitions in 'brown outs.' It's senseless. It's the 'elephant in the living room' for live theatre. Yes, I fully understand the concept of 'suspension of disbelief' but, good Lord, what ever happened to common sense? We can see the stage! It's not as if the lights dim, the scene changes, the lights come back up and the audience gasps in awe and wonder at how it happened, how they were magically transported to another place and time. I say get rid of them all, even at the cost of sacrificing realism. And while I'm on THAT subject, there is no such thing on the stage anymore. That idea died with the Russians around 1900. It is the age of film and television, for heaven's sake, and theatre cannot now, nor ever will be able, to compete with the inherent realism in film. No one is fooled. In fact, they're offended.

So I say, no more blackouts or brownouts or blueouts or lengthy scene changes of any kind in live theatre. It's sophomoric. At the very most, under any circumstances, a cross-fade is the most a director can get away with. Why loose an entire audience for the sake of one or two massive scene changes?

Now, I, too, have reluctantly written episodic theatre pieces. With my play, PRAYING SMALL, it was unavoidable. It was the only way to tell the story I wanted to tell. But I specifically wrote the play so that all the transitions happened with a cross-fade, not a blackout. I had a terrible time of it trying to make the director of the play here in LA understand that. He wanted these massive, cumbersome, obvious, silly, long, theatre-rattling scene changes with lots of diverting music and sound effects as though the audience wouldn't notice. It was a fearsome argument trying to make him understand how self-defeating this was. Eventually, I won that argument but not without a bunch of senseless debate and yammering. One would think this stuff would be self-evident, but it is not. And I'm not sure who to blame for this silliness. Academia, I suppose. Academia could screw up a one car funeral. For whatever reason, directors are taught all across America that blackouts in the theatre are acceptable. Well, they are not. Again, they KILL a play.

Okay. Done with that. Aside from the poor directing, there were some very fine performances in this piece. Andrew Ableson, Loren Lester, Zoe Perry, Abigail Revasch and Charlie Saxton all comport themselves admirably up there on the boards. I enjoyed every single on of them at various points throughout the evening, particularly the very natural Loren Lester, who has a way of delivering a line with a very easy, unharried, energy. Much harder than it looks. That kind of work is difficult as hell. If it weren't, everyone would do it. And everyone doesn't. It's the kind of work that makes non-professional actors say to themselves, "I could do that." They can't. It's the result of years, decades of work. Kudos to Mr. Lester. Good stuff.

I must admit, this is the kind of production that could easily be elevated to the status of 'great' if only a good director would step in for a few days and eliminate all the blackout crap. But as it stands, it doesn't have a chance. Regardless how good the actors are, they are defeated at every turn by the clumsy and unnecessary scene changes. Too bad, really, because there is truly some fine work being done on that stage.

The tragic part of all this is that it is not an isolated incident. It is, unfortunately, the way of all theatre these days, it seems.

END DAYS tackles some pretty hefty ideas. Intelligent design versus logical progression. Jesus versus Stephen Hawking. Indefensible Judeo-Christianity maxims versus common sense. God versus fate. To anyone with a little education, these would seem to be foregone conclusions, a moot argument, but one only has to follow politics these days to realize they are not. We have three front-running Rebublicans who all believe the world was created six thousand years ago, and what's more, that this should be taught as fact to our children. So, as astonishing as it may be, it is not a foregone conclusion. This battle is still raging and at this point, I'm sorry and aghast to report, the outcome is still very much a mystery. And yet, Ms. Laufer has the saavy to make her imagined Jesus and Stephen Hawking characters quite flawed and silly, too. Jesus rolls his eyes a lot at the blind allegiance given to him and the Dr. Hawking character (both played by the same actor, by the way) is obssessed with capitalism, concerned with making a buck off his book, The History of Time. It works, too, dramaturgically. It keeps the play from wallowing in too much self-seriousness. And Ms. Laufer clearly has an ear for dialogue, particularly in the first act. But she reaches her catharsis about a half hour before the play ends and then tries, unsuccessfully, to stretch it out. This is one of those plays that could easily be done in about ninety minutes instead of the two hours it actually takes to unfold. The greatest mistake a playwright can make is letting the audience get ahead of the actors. That's what happens here. Her climactic second act becomes pedestrian because we've already figured out where she's going with everything.

The play was first produced in 2008, won a number of awards I've never heard of, and apparently was well received by a whole array of literary critics. I can see why that would be. I suspect this play is a lot more adventurous on the page than on the stage.

END DAYS, Odyssey Theatre, through October 16, 2011.

See you tomorrow.